Boris Johnson and his secretary of state for transport laughed during Monday’s Downing Street press conference held to update the nation on the escalating chaos caused by Covid, Christmas and Brexit combining in a tumultuous storm.
More than 40 countries have banned air and rail links to Britain as fears grow about the mutant coronavirus strain that has shut down London and the south east causing misery and upset for millions across the UK and beyond.
The UK’s chief scientist warned that tighter restrictions for the whole country are inevitable to contain the new Covid variant, yet at the very same press briefing the prime minister and Grant Shapps laughed when asked about the very real prospect of a no-deal Brexit with just 10 days until the end of the transition period.
‘You must know by now’
Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor asked Johnson: “It’s almost the end of the year, you must know by know whether we’re going to get a free trade deal. Will we?”
The words “free trade deal” seemed to trigger the prime minister’s laughter and he visibly shook with mirth and glanced at his transport secretary Shapps who returned the PM’s gaze with his own contained chuckle.
The response naturally caused outrage and anger given the serious precariousness of the UK’s position. Millions of families are still coming to terms with the very recent disruption and upheaval caused by the government’s (latest) U-turn over the Christmas restrictions, on top of the fears about the impact of the new coronavirus strain as just expressed by Sir Patrick Vallance.
And all this multiplied by the perilous position posed by the continuing uncertainty for businesses with the transition period ending on December 31 without any sign of a deal being struck; absolute chaos at UK ports; and Britain being cut-off from the world with travel bans announced by more and more countries.
But somehow, the prime minister and secretary of state of transport found reason for laughter.
Johnson replied to Peston’s question that he’d “had a great conversation with Emmanuel [Macron] as I’ve said, it’s his birthday by the way, but we vowed to stick-off Brexit because that negotiation is being conducted as you know via the European Commission and that’s quite proper and the position is unchanged.
“There are problems, it is vital that everybody understands that the UK has got to be able to control its own laws completely and also that we’ve got to be able to control our own fisheries and it remains the case that WTO terms would be more than satisfactory for the UK and we can certainly cope with any difficulties that are thrown in our way.”
‘Chaos proves Britain is ready for no-deal’ – Shapps
Indeed, Shapps has even claimed that the chaos at the ports is actually proof that Britain is ready for a no-deal given how “successfully” it has responded to the turmoil.
“Some of the reasons why we’ve not seen big problems in Kent today is because of the transition period work that’s been going on for very many months, and years even,” said Shapps, adding: “To a large extent it has shown, we are ready.”
If the miles of tailbacks on the M20 motorway to Dover and freight companies being told not to send their lorries to British ports in Kent, East Sussex and Hampshire is a sign of that preparedness and success, one can only wonder at what “successes” the other signs foretell.
British supermarkets are warning of imminent food shortages on shelves while investors have given their clear verdict on the UK’s preparedness to “cope with any difficulties that are thrown in our way” with the FTSE 100 down £30 billion on Monday alone and sterling down against the dollar and euro.
Redundancies are at record levels and the economy is entering the worst recession for 300 years. Yet, as today’s press briefing about all of the above shows, if you are a top Tory there are still plenty of reasons not just to be cheerful, but for public laughter even while all around is real despair.